How to become a (temporary) expert
5 ways to give your nonfiction the voice of authority
Published: December 27, 2005
|I remember being in awe of an older woman I met at a writers conference. She had been publishing articles successfully for nearly 20 years. I was a new writer at the time, still finding my own voice and my own place in the industry, eager to pick up as much advice as I could--especially from a veteran writer like Doris.|
She agreed to meet me for lunch one afternoon to talk about how I could move forward in my commitment to writing for publication. I came to the table armed with a notebook, pen and tape recorder. As we ate, we discussed the business of freelance writing. "How do you manage to write on such a wide variety of topics?" I asked. "You appear to be an expert in everything," I said, knowing she had published widely in such publications as The National Enquirer, Grit, Westways and Seventeen.
"The trick is to become a temporary expert. But don't tell anyone I told you! I want people to think I'm a know-it-all," she said, laughing. "It's not that difficult, actually. I concentrate on one subject at a time--the one I'm writing about at the moment. I learn everything I can. When I'm finished with that article, I become a temporary expert in something else."
I left the restaurant that day inspired by her simple and workable idea, and eager to put it to use in the areas that interested me. In the years since, I have become a temporary expert on a wide range of subjects--working with horses, special effects in film, Kurdish refugees, step-parenting and grandparenting, women and money addictions, kids and reading, and bird feathers! Many of them are complex topics that I would have stayed away from if I had not taken Doris' advice.
If you'd like to broaden the base of your nonfiction writing, tackle some unfamiliar subjects and give your nonfiction article and book ideas a new voice of authority, then I encourage you to step out and become a temporary expert in whatever subject areas you wish to write about. Here is a five-point plan you might wish to try. I have followed this with good results (sales!) for more than 20 years.
1. Select a topic of interest
Go to the library and gather books, magazine articles, surveys, government documents, press releases and any other pertinent material. If you have access to the Internet, so much the better. Download information on the topic you're interested in. Don't be fooled by the obvious simplicity of this most basic step. Many new writers--too many, in fact--do not follow through on this.
Back issues of popular magazines and professional journals provide a wealth of solid, useful information on almost any topic you can think of? While I wrote my book on homeless children, I scanned myriad publications and microfilm at the library. (That book was published before I had a computer, so I did not have the Internet to turn to.)
You can locate appropriate issues by checking the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature and other magazine and newspaper resources available at the library and through the Internet. This is a sound and reliable first step to becoming a temporary expert.
2. Contact professionals in your targeted field
A librarian can help you here. So can a good Internet search engine. While researching the topic of women and their money addictions, I made a list of the top eight behaviors that indicate out-of-control behavior. I also attended a 12-step support group whose focus was to help people with addictive spending habits. There I met women who agreed to interviews as long as I did not use their real names in print. I also became familiar with organizations such as Consumer Credit Counselors that work exclusively with people who are in debt. Without such referrals, the book would have lacked the breadth and power of real-life people in real-life situations.
3. Meet the real experts
Next, I call or write individuals whose names I found while reading or through my initial contact with an organization. For example, while researching my chapter on extraterrestrial trash for the book on waste pollution, I read a magazine interview with Don Kessler of the Johnson Space Center. Kessler, I learned, is a space debris expert. I knew immediately he was someone I wanted to talk with.
The following day I called JSC to speak with Kessler. He answered my questions, put me in touch with the JSC newsletter editor for copies of published articles on space debris and made it possible for me to receive free photographs.
It all started with a trip to the magazine morgue in the library. Before I finished the chapter I was a walking, talking (temporary) expert on space pollution!
4. Conduct your own research
It's good to get it 'straight from the horse's mouth,' as the saying goes. Original sources give your writing authenticity as well as authority. A friend of mine traveled to Stockholm to do research in Swedish for her book on women who have won the Nobel Prize.
For my book Restoring Relationships with Your Adult Children, I interviewed men and women who had agreed to tell their personal story in order to benefit readers who were suffering because of broken relationships. I changed identifying details in order to protect their privacy, but their experiences were true--and my book was more authentic because of them.
Such research is not always possible. Not everyone can afford the time or expense of travel, and in some cases the original sources are not available. For example, for my books on Vietnam and Kurdish refugees, I spoke with Vietnamese and Kurdish natives who now live in the United States. These families were a good secondary source of help. I went back to these folks several times to verify details about life in their countries, to help with the pronunciation guide, and to gather recipes or folk tales that only they could provide.
5. Make the experience real for you
Experience is a writer's best friend. There is nothing that will give your article more of a voice of authority than personal experience. Bake hot pretzels, then write up their history for a kids' magazine and include a good recipe. Make the rounds with a country vet, then write a career piece for teens. Watch meteorologists chart the weather, then report on what you witnessed. Interview a zoologist, then put together an article about working with animals.
When people find out you are writing an article or a book, they want to help. I think you'll find them eager to show and teach you what you need to know.
So don't put off that article or book you've been dying to write. Become involved in the fact-finding process. Get your feet wet, your hands dirty, your mind engaged, your heart beating. Look, listen, taste, touch and smell. Then write about it--and it will ring true because you were there. You know what you're talking about. You're an expert--at least temporarily!
Based in San Diego, California, Karen O'Connor is an award-winning author of more than 30 published books for children and adults. She is also a speaker and writing consultant.
--Posted Dec. 27, 2005